Bollinger and Lemann, Unplugged, on ‘Uninhibited, Robust and Wide-Open’

Columbia Journalism School dean and a distant overseer of CJR, Nicholas Lemann, interviewed Columbia University President and First Amendment scholar, Lee C. Bollinger, last night about his latest book, published in January, “Uninhibited, Robust and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century.”

Bollinger, whose book analyzes the future of a free press in an increasingly global world, gives the University-wide commencement address each year. Lemann playfully jumped into what he called “Tim Russert mode,” reading excerpts from two of Bollinger’s addresses, given two years apart from each other, that expressed starkly different takes on the role of the Internet in the spread of ideas and globalization of the free press.

Bollinger in 2007:

Meanwhile, the internet and the ease of personal interaction are creating a global marketplace of ideas. In just a few years, the conventional media of mass communication, which had more or less a natural monopoly, are being by-passed by a medium that really looks like a New England town meeting – except it’s a global conversation. It’s surprisingly cheap, it’s instantaneous, and it’s open for now. If you believe, as Justice Holmes said, that “the best test of truth is the power of an idea to get itself accepted in the marketplace of ideas,” then this is the stuff of profound and revolutionary change. Greater and greater openness is inevitable and, let’s hope, so is the exponential unleashing of the human spirit.

And at last year’s 2009 address:

What’s more, the very same technology - the Internet - that is making global communication so pervasive - is simultaneously undermining the financial model of the traditional press, as we’ve known it. Ironically, and unfortunately, at the very moment when we want and need more serious study of and reporting on global issues, we are getting less and less of it. Universities - including Columbia - are expanding their presence internationally, but the press is pulling back - closing foreign bureaus and decreasing coverage of international news. This is in addition to an observable and regrettable regression in some of the media into triviality, popular obsessions, and intolerant and shallow opinion-mongering.

No one should take this development lightly. As Walter Lippmann wrote about the shortcomings of the press in its coverage of the First World War, a crisis of journalism is a crisis of democracy. No one should assume that the institutions committed to a professional culture of journalism or scholarship can be replaced by thousands of individual, citizen-journalists, just as you cannot replace our great universities with multiple individual websites each offering specialized knowledge in an atomized way. Sometimes you need big, strong news organizations to challenge the vast powers of government, corporations and other large institutions.

What, Lemann asked, flipped Bollinger’s optimistic view in two short years?

“Several things happened,” Bollinger said. “Number one, the rapidity with which press lost its financial footing and chose so immediately to contract. Most all expenses are newsroom expenses, and a big fraction, just like universities, are largely salaries, so they chose to close bureaus and take reporters away and eliminate foreign coverage. I had simultaneously realized that we were finishing an era of the First Amendment, that the doctrines, principles, elaborations that had taken place over past 50 years have become so ingrained in American Constitutional life that we have freedom of press that is unmatched. But now with globalization, which I think is primarily an economic-driving activiy, we are entering this new world of the global public forum and therefore, the decline in the coverage of global news struck me as a deep, deep paradox, a deep irony, a real problem to be solved. I just didn’t see the impact on the global forum in 2007. I saw the proliferation of voices but I didn’t see the impact on the press.”

For the complete audio of Lemann and Bollinger’s talk, go here.

And right now (as of noon, EST), you can catch a live video feed and submit questions as Bollinger is interviewed by the Journalism School’s Dean of Student and founder of the South Asian Journalists Association, Sree Sreenivasan.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.